As was published in last week’s Redwood Times, Mendocino County sheriff Tom Allman has announced the release of a new self-published book titled Out There In The Woods: The Day-by-Day Account of the Extraordinary 36-Day Manhunt for a Double-Murderer on the Northern California Coast. The book was co-authored by Stephen Sparks, regular contributor with the Anderson Valley Advertiser in Boonville, published independently, and is available online.
Out There in the Woods contains sheriff Allman’s account of the events that took place on the Mendocino County coast near Fort Bragg in the summer of 2011. Allman discussed his new book with Redwood Times reporter Dave Brooksher, who was working with KZYX News at Mendocino County Public Broadcasting at the time of the manhunt. A full audio recording of the interview can be obtained at www.kmud.org.
Sheriff Allman said about four or five weeks after the situation ended he contacted Stephen Sparks at the Anderson Valley Advertiser and asked him if there was a possibility they could sit down and do a two- or three-part story for the paper.
They started spending weekends together, talking about everything, discussing and answering questions. It came to a point where this was going to be much bigger than a three-part story in the newspaper so they made a determination to work on a book.
The following is a recent phone interview with sheriff Allman.
RWT: Let’s start with the murders of Matt Coleman and Jere Melo. What can you tell me about those crime scenes, and when did you realize that they were connected?
ALLMAN: Well... The crime scenes were - I hate to use the word typical - but they were crime scenes. They were homicide crime scenes. Evidence was there.
When the first crime happened with Matt Coleman it was an absolute who-dun-it. We had no leads, very little evidence to go on at the crime scene, we were lacking a motive. And we had collected quite a bit of evidence and sent it to DOJ for DNA results, but DNA results are only good if you have somebody to compare them too.
There’s not a bank of DNA results in the state. So when the Jere Melo homicide occurred in August, it was a witnessed homicide. We had a person who was with Jere who had also been shot at. He clearly knew who the shooter was...
So after the Jere Melo crime scene was processed, and there was evidence collected there, we had a known shooter. We did do the DNA comparison, and of all things there were Hershey Chocolate Kisses wrappers. The DNA obtained from both crime scenes, the Hershey Kisses Wrappers, both had DNA from Aaron Bassler. That’s when we officially [made] the connection between the two. There was lots of discussion that he was the suspect in both, but not until we had the factual evidence did we call a press conference or send a press release out and clearly say this was the connection.
So, I spent the last 13 months with a writer, Stephen Sparks. And we’ve gone over the incident. We’ve certainly talked about things that weren’t in the press. We’ve certainly discussed uncomfortable things - maybe things law enforcement would do different next time.
But I told him it was my intention that we cover it as much as possible. I didn’t want the newspaper’s written story to be the final authority in the history of this incident. I wanted law enforcement to have some say on what the final authority is.
The fact that Bassler was killed on the 36th day meant that we were not going to go to court, and so there were many details that the public would never know. So I spent time with Stephen Sparks, and we went through the entire investigation.
He met with Jim Bassler, Aaron Bassler’s father. Jim Bassler was given a full chapter to discuss his thoughts and his feelings about the incident. Jim Bassler was involved in our investigation - we certainly were trying everything possible to get his son to surrender and we all know that didn’t happen.
RWT: So as you point out, one of the uncomfortable aspects about this case is that due to the fact that Aaron Bassler died there’s no possibility of a conviction. What does that mean for you as a law enforcement officer, and for the Mendocino County community at large?
ALLMAN: Well... I certainly would love to say that everybody has the opportunity to have their day in court, but the situation we were in that day, with everything coming in to play, with Bassler walking up the road with his assault rifle in his right hand, with his trigger finger extended over the trigger, there came a time when Aaron Bassler, whether he knew it or not, was deciding how this was going to end.
We certainly wanted to arrest him, because I think if you look at the whole mental health aspect... some people would say he’s a victim of society. I’m not going to go there myself, I’m telling you what other people have said.
But there came a time where the law enforcement officers on that day, October 1st, they made a decision. The decision was based on their experience, their education, on case law. And the decision to shoot Aaron Bassler was made, and the action happened, and he was killed on that day.
So I think, you know, what my thoughts are, would I rather have him in court or would I rather have it ended the way it did, I think it’s a purely academic question. I’ve said many times, I supported the way it ended. But I clearly am telling you that if he had been arrested, I would support that way.
The fact that he was unable to continue any more threats on innocent victims is something we have to look at. It ended - it ended the threats on innocent victims.
RWT: So, as you pointed out Aaron Bassler is believed to have been mentally ill. How did that information first come to light for you as law enforcement, and how did it affect the operation during the search for Aaron Bassler?
ALLMAN: Well, the name Aaron Bassler had never come across my desk. While his father has said that he sent letters to the courts, and to the medical staff at the jail, there’s this one situation that everybody who deals with medical information is aware of - HIPAA (the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996).
When a person is an adult, a lot of medical information we’re not able to discuss with other adults, even though he’s the parent. I believe it’s a fallacy of the HIPAA law. I believe the HIPAA law should be changed to where a relative or a spouse could easily have a conversation with us and we would be allowed to tell them information also.
But right now, the way the law is written, it’s one-way information. Information can come in, medical information, but we can’t divulge medical information. I would encourage people to think about this, maybe we can speak to our national lawmakers and say we do need to have some kind of correction with HIPAA laws.
RWT: So tell me about the manhunt. What agencies got involved, and what were the conditions on the ground like?
ALLMAN: The search for Aaron Bassler was a very rugged search. It was in the western portions of the northern mountains of Mendocino, and the Noyo basin.
The ruggedness, the terrain, the topography, all was bad. The visibility was incredibly tough. It would be very possible for someone to be five feet away from somebody else behind bushes (not trees but bushes) and they would not be seen.
During this time, we had upwards of 400 people conducting the investigation. It was just a rugged search. We were certainly aware that both the homicide victims had been shot [while] going into a territory that Mr. Bassler felt was his environment. His territory. He was a very athletic person. He was very knowledgeable of the Noyo Basin, and hiding spots. He was very comfortable with weaponry. It was a tough search.
We used the US Marshall Service, we certainly used all local law enforcement and other law enforcement agencies from within Northern California. We would bring them in, and go complete our mission to search for Aaron Bassler. A lot of people were asking, "Can you just bring him in?" and the other side of the coin, people were saying, "Just get this over with and shoot him."
What we wanted to do was to safely arrest Aaron Bassler and let him have his day in court, but as we know that’s not how this story ended.
RWT: It seems like the turning point there was the incident where Bassler was believed to have fired on law enforcement personnel out in the woods. What can you tell me about that?
ALLMAN: That certainly was a game changer. The fact that he had fired at the Alameda County swat team, and not only had he fired once, but after they regrouped he actually had flanked them and fired again. During this exchange, nobody was hit. He was very successful by being able to walk in the woods without making noise, and he eluded law enforcement. But that was three days before the shooting, the fatal shooting, and it was a game changer for us because we hadn’t had an encounter yet where he had aggressively fired at law enforcement.
RWT: How do you know that the individual that fired at Alameda swat was Aaron Bassler? Do you have any forensic evidence from that incident?
ALLMAN: Forensics evidence? No. But clearly the officers who were there could see who he was. They had seen the pictures, and he was dressed in the way that he was last seen, and they said "Yes, that was him."
RWT: So, let’s talk about that fatal shooting, and the way this incident came to an end. Can you give a play by play of how this worked itself out?
ALLMAN: Well, it was a situation where the night before a burglary had happened. The burglary was quite a ways from where we thought he was. Over ten miles away from where we thought he was. It was a similar burglary to what he had been involved with before, where liquor was taken, where food items were taken, and some men’s boots were taken.
We had a belief that Aaron Bassler had committed that burglary, and we had a bloodhound go to that area. The bloodhound was aware of Bassler’s scent. We had a stabilized item that had Bassler’s scent on it.
The bloodhound pointed to a trail, and led the handler in a direction away from where we thought [Bassler] was. That changed our tactical planning for the next day. The next day, the swat team members were sent out.
A three-man swat team from Sacramento was near the base of a redwood tree when they witnessed Bassler walking towards them at a very fast pace. It was almost like a fast sport walk, that kind of walking-with-a-purpose kind of walk. As I said earlier, the assault rifle was in his right hand and he was looking. No words were spoken, no announcement was given, but the Sacramento team fired and killed Aaron Bassler.
RWT: At the time of the press conference announcing this incident, you cited a legal precedent where something similar took place. What can you tell me about that?
ALLMAN: Well, the Garner vs. Tennessee decision basically has been given to us by the U.S. supreme court. It says that if law enforcement believes that the escape of an individual, a felon, is going to compromise public safety, law enforcement can use lethal force to stop that person.
The Tennessee vs. Garner decision was something that was discussed. It was discussed at briefings, and we clearly said that if you find Bassler sleeping or walking without a gun or if he shows any signs of not being able to be dangerous, let’s arrest him.
But we certainly weren’t going to force law enforcement to put themselves in any more harm’s way than they already were by yelling something at him, and having Bassler literally jump four feet into the woods and being lost again.
RWT: I think it’s fair to say that you folks did what you had to do to bring that situation to a conclusion, but there was some ill will in the community afterwards. I recall seeing some letters to the editor referring to the incident as "Allman’s Ambush," and I always wanted to ask you how you felt about that.
ALLMAN: I haven’t seen anything about "Allman’s Ambush," but I will tell you that we realized after the incident that we had spoken much more on how we were going to get this guy arrested than we had spoken about if he is shot.
We hadn’t spent as much planning for the shooting as for the arrest. We were counting on arresting him and transporting him to jail and getting him to court - these were meetings that we had had. "When we arrest him, this is what we’re going to do." This wasn’t a "shoot-to-kill" order - this was a situation where public safety was being compromised. We’d had two absolutely innocent victims viciously murdered through no fault of their own, they were actually out doing their jobs.
This person, and yes I believe he was mentally ill, was still on the loose and we were on day 36 of trying to find him and trying to bring this to resolution. Nobody was given any kind of shoot-to-kill orders; nobody was given a green light. Law enforcement officers who were trained and who had experience were told to go out and do their jobs, and this is how it ended up.
RWT: During the manhunt, I got a lot of calls at the news desk at KZYX from people who were concerned that there were drone aircraft being used in the attempt to locate Aaron Bassler. To your knowledge is there any truth to that?
ALLMAN: There is absolutely no truth whatsoever.
RWT: For you, what’s the big takeaway here? What did you feel like you learned, and what did the law enforcement community learn from this incident?
ALLMAN: We have to look at the unfortunate tragedy in Connecticut. People are talking about gun control.
People are talking about all these items, and we have to keep talking about mental health. Mental health is the weakest link in our safety net. We need to prioritize mental health.
We need to understand that until we get mental health services back in the general public that these situations are not going to be such a surprise. So the takeaway is for me, what can we as government or we as society do to improve our mental health safety net?